- The Washington Times - Friday, October 28, 2005

“Can you believe that?” Tab Hunter exclaims, recalling an episode from his autobiography, “Tab Hunter Confidential,” just published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill ($24.95 retail). During a conversation at a Dupont Circle coffee shop a few hours before a scheduled promotional appearance at a bookstore, the 1950s teen heartthrob, now a somewhat venerable of-fact but never clinical way in the course of the chronicle. Mr. Hunter, born Arthur Gelien at Bellevue Hospital in New York in 1931, confirms homosexual liaisons with actors Anthony Perkins and figure skater Robbie Robinson (a silver medal winner at the 1956 Winter Olympics), not to mention an unconsummated crush on Rudolf Nureyev, but his revelations remain far too discreet for the passionately prurient.

The “Young Love” that proved a professional milestone for Mr. Hunter was a cover version of a country ballad by Sonny James. Near the end of 1956, he was persuaded by Randy Wood’s Dot Records to try his luck with a recording. Mr. Hunter protested that he wasn’t a singer, but Mr. Wood explained that there were ways to compensate for relative amateurism of that kind. Billy Vaughn did an arrangement, the Jordanaires were hired to back up the novice, and a Saturday shortly before Christmas was devoted to recording.

Dot astonished Mr. Hunter — accustomed to the slow-moving processes of the film industry — by having the record in circulation and heading up the Billboard charts by the second week of January 1957. The first royalty check was an even happier astonishment. However, a wake-up call brought him down to earth. Mr. Hunter’s nonchalant handshake deal with Dot was resented by Warner Bros., which insisted that Mr. Hunter’s long-term contract covered all performing activities.

Thus, Warner had to be cut in on the success of “Young Love,” which surpassed Elvis Presley’s “Too Much” as No. 1 in February. As useful punishment, Mr. Hunter was sent out to promote “The Spirit of St. Louis” in several cities. At that time, it was studio policy to demand junket duty of contract players even if they hadn’t been in the movie being touted. “Spirit of St. Louis” was pretty much a solo flight for James Stewart.

Better yet, because Warner Bros. didn’t have a record division of its own, Jack Warner thought it prudent to make up for lost time. Tab Hunter and “Young Love” became the first assets of Warner Bros. Re-cords, an afterthought destined to become a mighty revenue stream for the corporation.

“I was fortunate to be a part of the old studio system,” Mr. Hunter reflects. “If you were as green as I was, just a kid who hung around a riding stable in Griffith Park and was considered photogenic and maybe appealing to teenage girls, you were grateful for the steady work and the attention. Later, when you start to grow up and get a little self-confidence, you start to resist being stereotyped.”

In fact, Mr. Hunter arranged to buy out the last two years of his original seven-year contract, which had commenced in 1954. The movie version of “Damn Yankees” was a profitable project for actor and studio in 1958, but the business was changing in ways that caught most of the studio managements flat-footed.

“It was a tough transitional period,” Mr. Hunter observes. “Several of the companies were forced to sell off their theater chains. They dug in their heels about television at first. … Later, everyone realized that television needed the sort of expertise and factory system that were synonymous with movie studios.

“Warner was willing to loan me out for TV after a while, just as he had loaned me out to Columbia and other studios for a nice fee. That’s how I got into live TV drama, with ‘Fear Strikes Out!’ on ‘Climax!’ and then the first ‘Playhouse 90’ production, ‘Forbidden Area,’ for Rod Serling and John Frankenheimer.”

In fact, Mr. Hunter became far more active in television during the middle 1950s than his fans probably remember. As the major studios cut back on both new theatrical movies and extended talent contracts, there was more work to be had in the new medium.

“The two- or three-picture deal became popular,” Mr. Hunter recalls. “It was smart to adjust to that alternative if you were still under contract, because chances are the home studio just didn’t have enough to keep you busy.”

A chapter called “Menace to Society” is devoted to a recap of Mr. Hunter’s outrageous 1960 show trial as an accused dog beater. The alleged victim was Fritz, his pet Weimeraner. Peeping neighbors persuaded themselves that Mr. Hunter had brutalized the dog while trying to discourage him from digging up the back yard. The trial, which ended in a speedy acquittal, included testimony that Mr. Hunter had lofted Fritz with a vicious kick. A vaudeville exchange helped settle the matter.

Defense counsel, questioning a veterinarian: “Is it possible that Mr. Hunter could have kicked a 90 -pound animal into the air?” Witness: “Under certain conditions.” Counsel: “And what would those conditions be?” Witness: “If Mr. Hunter were a horse.”

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